Story Structure: The Ingredients of a Narrative

The premise of a story is the argument of the story, and it is the job of the artist to make the message of the premise meaningful.

Flipping through some of the Premises in Subtxt, one might find them cold and uninviting. "Abandon your skepticism and can guarantee a profitable future?" Writers don't talk this way, do they? They don't--but they do think that way.

They just don't know it yet.

Differences in Premises

Recent feedback on the 500+ Premises listed in Subtxt offered an opportunity to get into the difference between story structure and storytelling:

What's the difference between just abandoning and "getting out of your own way" and abandoning?

The Premise in Subtxt is a Dramatica Storyform reduced into a single sentence. As many aspects are involved in a complete narrative (59 Storypoints and 300+ Storybeats!), this approach is not entirely accurate, and as a consequence, many essential elements slip under the rug.

One of these blended aspects is the relationship between the Main Character Approach and the Story Driver, which Dramatica refers to as the Story Tendency: Willing or Unwilling.

When the MC Approach aligns with the Story Driver (a Do-er MC in an Action story or a Be-er in a Decision story), the result is a Main Character who flows with the plot. Because their approach to resolving conflict matches what is needed to move the plot forward, they are considered Willing.

When that relationship falls out of sync (a Do-er in a Decision story or a Be-et in an Action story), the result is greater resistance and an Unwilling Tendency throughout the narrative.

(Note: this has absolutely nothing to do with the Hero's Journey concept of the "refusal of the call," Which is strictly a storytelling device and has nothing to do with story structure).

In Subtxt's Premise Builder, you can see this relationship play out in two places. One is within the Narrative Personality section: the physical location of the MC Throughline (blue) in either Universe/Physics or Psychology/Mind indicates the Main Character Approach (Do-er or Be-er, respectively), and the choice of Typical/Atypical just below sets the Story Driver.

The second place you can find this relationship is in the Premise itself. Main Character Throughlines not aligned with the Story Driver add "when you get out of your way" to the Premise, while those aligned leave it out.

As the Premise is a reduction of a Dramatica Storyform, the "you" in question is not the Main Character but rather the mind of the story communicating directly to the audience.

Pivotal Elements and the Argument of a Story

how does a statement like "if you this, then you can this" relate to primary conflict/ inequity ultimately, to two incompatible truths. It's a sort of prescriptive statement, or a logical one, an if / then.

The Pivotal Elements of a narrative (what you refer to as "two incompatible truths") are the literal pivotal points between Character and Plot. They are components of the argument.

The Premise is the argument of the story.

Simply put, presented with the inequity between two sides of the same coin (e.g., Pursuit and Avoid), the Storymind presents an argument about the appropriateness of each, with an emphasis on one over the other.

This emphasis is represented in the Premise, as it will contain the central Pivotal Element (the one tied directly to the Main Character of the narrative). The other is present through relation (i.e., you can't appreciate Pursuit without Avoid).

In a story built around the inequity between the Pivotal Elements of Avoid and Pursuit, one argument to be made could be:

Abandon running away, and you can gain control over your life.

A story with this Premise argues that if you give up or abandon, running away from your problems, you can finally gain some control over your life. This argument is the Premise present in films like Lion King, Mad Max: Fury Road, Pitch Perfect, and The Black Panther. These films prove that Premise by showing the success that occurs when people stop running away from their problems.

they sound like such small answers to the bigger question of two incompatible truths. I'm not hearing meaning in them. So what is meaning and where is it in story?

Subtxt, and the Dramatica theory of story, is built on the Premise that every complete story is an argument. The notion that cultures survive and prosper based on the narratives they tell themselves is a result of this Grand Argument Story concept. The more people can communicate the triumphs and tragedies associated with choosing one approach over the other; the more readily future generations can skip the same trial-and-error process of the past.

is a grand argument of a story how one makes peace with two truths, or shows how two truths can be navigated, or what the author thinks is the answer to the unsolvable conflict?

Yes (to all three questions). However, a Premise argues explicitly that the inequity is solvable. In the example above, the solution to the inequity is to stop running away and pursue a course of action. Pursuit is the Solution to those stories.

There is another category of narrative that addresses the first two questions that Subtxt handles quite well: the concept of the Female Mental Sex narrative.

While built upon the same concept of the Grand Argument Story, the argument is much more about balancing inequities rather than solving a problem directly.

or is it Mamet's thing, the purpose of drama isn't to solve but to air the conflict completely, so we can experience awe, humbled by the paradoxes of humanity; feel relief from trying to solve it but instead give up control.

It sounds like Mamet prefers a Female Mental Sex story. 😊 (Though I suspect it might be something more, wherein he would reject the idea of a Grand Argument Story).

The Premise and the Concept of Meaningfulness

I've been looking for meaning in premises; like okay which story do I want to write or use as a basis, for fun. But then I read then, and obviously they don't sing. I expect them to be profound on their own, but clearly this isn't true, so what makes a movie great...

The Premises will not read as meaningful as they are codified arguments. To make them profound, you need an artist to bring them to life and make their message meaningful.😊

for instance, "if you abandon trying to be something you can avoid getting in the way of a group's mission" this isn't meaningful on its own. No one would write in order to communicate this.

True. But that might be because it's malformed. In the example given, the Character and Plot elements of the Premise have been switched. It should read:

"Abandon avoiding getting in the way of a group's mission and you can be something."

This Premise is also incorrect because the Character Element of Avoid does not relate to a Plot Element of Being (be something). For it all to flow, it would have to be something like this:

"Abandon avoiding getting in the way of a group's mission and you can become something."

Avoiding gets in the way of becoming something, not being something (there is a difference).

Looking at the Storyform Connections in Subtxt, there currently isn't a completed Storyform that combines the Character Element of Avoid with the Plot Element of Becoming in a meaningful narrative (you could be the first!).

There are several other examples of Becoming stories:

  • Pinnocchio, who abandons letting himself be controlled by others to become a real boy (Control)
  • Pretty Woman, where the Julia Roberts character keeps helping others to transform the man she loves (Help)
  • Beauty and the Beast, where Belle continues to advocate for her own freedom, which ends up "free-ing" the Beast from his curse and transforming him into a Prince (Free)

So, while they likely didn't start with a Subtxt Premise in mind, the series of events within their stories did.

Subtxt, and the Dramatica theory of story, present the ingredients of the story, not the taste nor the flavor. The meaning you are looking for is the experience of the story, which is 100% up to the artist and 100% subjective.

On the other hand, story structure is objective and somewhat "boring" in relation to the experiential side of communication--yet both are absolutely essential.

where is the X factor in the model, who can't AI do the whole thing? The artist isn't just adding window dressing right?

Is a chef simply adding window dressing by mixing ingredients and timing out the creation of a new dish? The exact process applies here.

Yes, the AI can do the whole thing, but chances are the experience--the "flavor" of the piece--will lack a particular something...until they find a way to code experience into creating a narrative.

Which will be here any day now. đŸ€–

Originally published 07-21-2022